13 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.
3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”
Being a writer and a storyteller, you often wonder if people are actually understanding what you say, and what you are telling them.
When you tell a story, you aren’t ever just telling a story. Every story bears a kind of truth, either out in front where everyone can understand it, or with meaning buried deep within it, and often, stories have both.
One must be careful though. In the film V for Vendetta, the protagonist at one point says that artists use lies to tell the truth. And in truth, a storyteller is a kind of liar. When you weave a fictional story, It is always dangerous, because inevitably you are lying to your audience. The events you tell of did not actually happen. And yet, even if they never did happen, a good storyteller wishes to tell you more than just a story. More than just something to make you feel something for a brief flash of a moment. A good storyteller wants you to change as a result of having heard the story. A story is a catalyst for many things. A story can even change a life.
I’ve told you many stories from this pulpit. Some of them have been historical, some of them have been fictional examples, vignettes from which to draw meaning. I do this because I fall into the tradition that Jesus started in his use of parables and storytelling.
I read to you the parable of the soils this morning without Jesus’s explanation because I want you to ponder it without Jesus telling you what to think of it first.
That’s actually how Jesus intended us to receive it, however. It was only at the urging of the disciples that he gave an interpretation to the story. I imagine he was a it disappointed that he had to do so. Well, I don’t have to imagine too hard; he all but says so. He laments that, when he gives the parables, that many do not have the understanding to perceive what he is saying, and that if they can’t understand a parable he gives, they really don’t understand anything. In fact, one could say that this parable was about parables themselves: that what the farmer sows may not be land in fertile ground. That Jesus didn’t wait for ideal conditions to give this parable is telling of what he thinks of us, and how he does his ministry.
A storyteller often wonders if the people understand what they’re trying to tell them. Jesus didn’t have to wonder. He knew. And he knew that those who did understand would be blessed with a glimpse at the kingdom of heaven.
A Parable about a Farmer
For a moment, then, let’s ignore what Jesus tells us about the soil. Let’s instead focus on the other aspects of the story he was telling us. First, let’s talk about the farmer.
This farmer in the story, to be completely honest, doesn’t seem to be a very deliberate farmer. In fact, he seems quite careless. I mean, he just throws his seeds around, not really caring where the seeds will land. He haphazardly tosses the life-bearing seeds onto any kind of soil, be it fertile, rocky, dry, or even on the hard road. He just…let it out into the world. He let nature take its course.
This means either one of two things for the farmer: either he’s a great fool, or he’s a generous soul. Now, obviously, Jesus certainly didn’t mean the farmer in this allegory to be a fool, but that wouldn’t stop people from thinking of him as so, would it? In fact it’s said many times that God’s wisdom is foolishness to the masses, and wisdom of men is foolishness to God. So we must be cautious in labeling the farmer a fool.
So that leaves generosity. The farmer spreads the seed far and wide, wherever the wind might take it, in hopes that it would take root anywhere, not really caring if some of it might not grow and bear fruit. The point is that the seed is sown.
That should say a lot to us, as well. If we are to imagine that the farmer is Christ, then we must take seriously that Christ does not aim to sow his seed in only particular places, with only particular people in mind. He did not come only to Jews. He did not go only to people in the Middle East. He did not send his disciples only to Greek speaking areas. He sent them out into the world. He did not preach only to the people in the synagogues, but on the streets, where anyone and everyone could hear him, in the hopes that the seeds might take root somewhere unexpected.
Because that’s just it, isn’t it? Where one might think the most ideal conditions would be–the synagogue– was not where his message took root, was it? In fact, it was in this supposedly “ideal setting” that Jesus was met with the most opposition, and even threatened with death multiple times. That his generous message of salvation and the kingdom of heaven was given generously everywhere should mean something to us: that the ideal conditions for growth may not be where we are now, but where we might be in the future.
A Parable about Soil
Now, I’d like to talk about the soil, because it is by far the most varied portion of the scripture.
Jesus, in the second half of the reading which I will now read, explains how these soils might interact with our own experience. Here’s the rest, 18-23:
18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”
So we see he warns of 3 dangers for people who receive the “seed,” which would be his gospel: Either it doesn’t take root and the message is destroyed from the outset, the faith is shallow and dies in harsh conditions, or the faith is choked away by sin.
Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? They certainly are to me. First there will always be people who are stubborn and refuse to listen. There will be people who don’t believe that there is anything wrong with the way they are now, or that they even need a savior. There will also be people who refuse the gospel out of hand because of other reasons: perhaps it simply doesn’t make sense, or it is so thoroughly implausible as to be laughed at out of hand. Perhaps they even have heard tale of abuses within the church, and want no part of the whole thing. These I would say belong to the first group: the seed has no way to take root, because it fell on concrete or asphalt. It just won’t take.
Then, there are people who have a shallow faith, who start out enthusiastic but at the first sign of turbulence, abandon the faith. Sadly, I must blame much of this on people who have been charged with sharing the gospel. For many a generation, there have been preachers who have not taken care to tell people what faith truly requires, that it’s more than a good feeling you get from accepting Jesus, but it means that life only gets harder, not easier, when you have faith. Life will have hard times. There will be illness, loss, grief, and obstacles. So we must take care to share the gospel accurately, and not ignore the fact that it calls us not to lie down in a bed of roses, but to pick up our cross and follow him.
And of course, there are those whose faith is choked away by sin and cares of this world. And for a moment, lets ignore the big flashy sins that get the headlines. Let’s ignore identity politics, and look at the real dangers Jesus mentions: worries of life and the appeal of wealth. Does he mention sex? No. Does he mention Government? No. Does he mention anything that Christians on tv and radio ever talk about? Not at all. He talks about anxiety and greed. He talks about fear, and he talks about money. Those two lead to a great deal of sin. Chasing money can lead us to sacrifice much on a pagan altar. It can cause us to sacrifice our families, and even the livelihoods of others. It can cause us to lie and cheat the system. Jesus has no illusions: just because it isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean it’s right. Likewise with anxiety and fear. As one who struggles with clinical anxiety, I can certainly see how it might choke whatever faith I might have. Anxiety in general, however, is based in fear, and also sadness. It is a mixture of those emotions, which can cause all kinds of havoc. It can make us lash out. It can make us shut others out as well. It can make us something other than what we are. It will choke out your faith.
The Work Ahead of Us
So, with all of that said, we have some work ahead of us. What work you ask? Jesus is already the one sowing the seed. So what work does that leave for us?
Well, first of all, we need to examine our own faith, and ask ourselves: are we the kind of soil that will be conducive to bearing fruit? Are we in ideal condition? Do we listen and understand what Jesus says, or dismiss what he says in favor of a different, gospel, philosophy, or way of life? Do we have a faith deep enough to withstand the hottest sun, the coldest winter, or the most torrential downpour? Do we have faith that resists the sins that Jesus warns us of, fear and greed? Can we muster up the faith to bear fruit in this world that can feed the hungriest of hearts?
And second, we must tend to our garden, which is to say, this church. Can we make this place fertile ground, ideal conditions for us to bear fruit? Can you be a person who makes it so that others can accept the good news? And are you ready for that to happen? Because when it does, things change. And any change is hard. We are creature of habit, and it’s hard to change. But that’s how plants work, right? They grow, and change from a tiny seed to a vine that produces all kinds of nourishing food. We must be willing to change if we want to be willing to grow, spiritually or otherwise. And we must make it so that we have ideal conditions for others to grow.
That is our task. That is the mission. That’s what work we have ahead of us. So go, and bear fruit. Go, and tend to the soil. Go, and bear the good news to the world.